Laxman-reviews-Team-India!

The one-day series may have been lost going into the last two matches, but I was delighted to see that there was no hangdog expression “let’s get this over with” approach from the Indian team. The body language had been impressive even during the loss at MCG, and India finally pulled one out of the fire at SCG with an excellent chase masterminded by the form batsmen at the top and completed by the impressive Manish Pandey, who reiterated the value of experience.

India would have been particularly disappointed at the manner in which they let the Canberra game slip after a wonderful platform laid by Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli. The inexperience in the middle-order showed as some of the youngsters sought the glory route to victory when singles and twos would have more than done the job. That was where Manish stood out in Sydney, his century wonderfully deserved for the calmness he showed under pressure, the enterprise in his shot-making and the energy displayed in his running between the wickets.

Manish is a veteran of sorts in the domestic cricket, having played eight seasons at the first-class level for Karnataka. He is a regular for Kolkata Knight Riders in IPL, and has shown several times in the past that he knows how to play in different occasions and situations. It could have been easy for him to cave in under the pressure of a massive chase and the loss in quick succession of Shikhar and Virat, but he grabbed the chance to showcase his skills at No. 4 with both hands in a brilliant exhibition of craftsmanship.

It helped that for a majority of his innings, he batted alongside the man in the form of his life, and with his captain who is no longer the ferocious ball-striker he once was, but who still knows a thing or two about finishing a limited-over game. Rohit Sharma was named Man of the Series for his consistent brilliance throughout the series, and while he would have been bitterly disappointed not to be there till the finish line and also at missing out on a third century by one run, he had set the platform for the SCG win alongside Shikhar.

For me it was especially satisfying to see the manner in which Shikhar approached the task in the last two games. Both in Canberra and Sydney, he relied on his fantastic timing; he will now have learnt that he is at his best when he relies on his strengths rather than trying to hit the cover off the ball, like he tried to do in some of the earlier games. When Shikhar is firing on all cylinders, it benefits the team in several ways. He and Rohit have a wonderful understanding at the top of the order, and if he can continue to bat in the manner in which he did in the last two one-day internationals, I see more runs and plaudits coming his way.

Manish, as I have mentioned a little earlier, showcased his wide range of strokes, but also a maturity and a temperamental excellence that should stand him in good stead going forward. He is only 26 and therefore has quite a few years of top-flight cricket left in him. His innovation and athleticism took some of the pressure off MS Dhoni during their decisive stand in Sydney. Both are brilliantly fit athletes who are also extremely quick between the wickets, and the manner in which they put pressure on Australia’s fielders was a sight to behold, given that often in the past, it is India who have been at the receiving end.

Australia had a rare off-day in the field, putting down some easy catches, none more expensive perhaps than Nathan Lyon dropping MS. There is no gain saying what the outcome would have been had MS fallen at that time. He had taken his time to play himself in, and if he had been dismissed then, it would have again exposed the inexperienced lower middle-order. Fortunately for India, despite being well below his best, MS did just enough to take the team close to the finish line, and Manish then applied the finishing touches in style.

I personally believe MS still has plenty to offer to Indian cricket, but I also feel the time has come for him to revisit his game plan when it comes to batting in the 50-over game. Historically, he has believed in taking the game deep, relying on his ability to hit sixes at will to intimidate the bowler in the final two or three overs. Increasingly over the last year, however, the big shots have been elusive. It could be because he is not playing cricket regularly, it could be because bowlers have become smarter and have worked out ways to stay away from his bruising willow, or it could be a combination of both factors, but MS is no longer the fearsome destroyer of bowling attacks that he once used to be.

As a result, he needs to adapt to the changing scenario. I feel he can ill afford any longer to play as many dot balls as he does at the start of his innings. Given how adept he is at working the gaps and how remarkably quick he continues to be between the wickets despite more than a decade at the highest level, MS — and India — will be better off if the captain rotates the strike more regularly in the early part of the innings so that he does not leave himself with too much to do at the back end. MS is intelligent enough to figure that out and skilful enough to find a way to do that.

Manish was not the only young gun to impress in Sydney. The more I see of Jasprit Bumrah, the more I am convinced he is close to the finished product. His unusual action makes him somewhat tricky to pick early on, he bowls at good pace but most importantly, he showed on debut that he knows the significance of sticking to the basics. In the previous column, I had written about the challenges in front of the captain when the bowlers bowl on both sides of the wicket. Bumrah showed on debut that with a little bit of application and common sense, it is not impossible to stick to one line. There is a lesson in that for some of the more experienced bowlers in both sides — mind you, it was not just Indian bowlers who were guilty of being erratic, Australia were equally culpable which is why nearly every one of the ten innings in the series yielded more than 300 runs.

There was a time when 300 used to be an exception, and tracking it down even more of a rarity. Gradually, 300 is becoming the par score on flat tracks, fast outfields and unbelievably heavy bats. Also, with the advent of Twenty20 cricket, teams no longer feel that any total is beyond their reach. There is a freshness to strokeplay and an innovation to thinking that is a direct fallout of the Twenty20 revolution, and I do not foresee totals ducking under 300 unless the surfaces are loaded massively in favour of the bowling group.

Twenty20 cricket will be flavour for the Indian team for the next two or so months, with three internationals against Australia followed by three at home against Sri Lanka, then the Asia Cup which will be a 20-over event for the first time and culminating in the World T20 at home in March and April.

For a group of players who play so much Twenty20 cricket in IPL, India have not been the most consistent T20 side in international cricket. I believe the main reason is that India do not play enough T20Is, but this run-in to World T20 is just what the doctor ordered, allowing MS and the think-tank to not just identify key personnel for key roles but also work out game plans that must be both practical and flexible. Flexibility could have been shown by asking an inform Manish Pandey to stay back for T20 series.

The return of Ashish Nehra, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh is a welcome development because for all the talk about Twenty20 cricket being a young man’s game, the Big Bash League — among the latest of the T20 leagues — has shown that there really is no substitute for experience. Brad Hodge and Kevin Pietersen, not to mention Chris Gayle, set the tournament alight; Indian selectors must be complimented for pinning their faith in the experienced trio of Nehra, Harbhajan and Yuvi, who are proven performers.

Throughout the one-day series in Australia, it was evident that India struggled because they were unable to pick early wickets. The best dot-ball in any format of the game is the one that comes with a ‘W’ attached to it. Ashish showed during his stint with Chennai Super Kings last year that he still has what it takes to hoodwink the best in the business, both with new ball and at the death, where he has quite mastered the art of bowling the yorker.

With Ashish at the top and Harbhajan and Ravichandran Ashwin controlling things in the middle overs, India have wicket-takers marshalling their bowling. MS will enjoy having wicket-taking bowlers at his disposal, just as he will welcome the infusion of firepower in the batting through Yuvi, Suresh Raina and Hardik Pandya.

Raina, of course, will be keen to prove a point. Having been overlooked for the one-day series, he played a significant part in Uttar Pradesh winning the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. He is easily the most consistent and accomplished Twenty20 batsman in India and should be in his element, while Pandya can ease into the scheme of things, having impressed with his ball-striking skills and his ability to take crucial wickets, both for Mumbai Indians in the IPL and for Baroda in domestic limited-overs play.

What one must guard against is to consider the three matches against Australia and the three against Sri Lanka as selection matches for Ashish, Harbhajan and Yuvraj. Ashish and Yuvi are returning to the national side after long layoffs and must be given time to rediscover rhythm. They should not be judged only on the back of wickets and runs. I do agree that it is important to stack up performances, but these are big-occasion players and if the selectors have identified these men as among those that can drive India’s challenge in the World T20, then they must back them and give them confidence instead of only expecting instantaneous results.

MS will also be mindful of the fact that the fielding standards might drop a little bit with three men in their mid-30s in his ranks. Fielding is as much about angles and anticipation as it is about speed across the turf and the ability to pull off breathtaking sliding stops. It will be a challenge for MS to identify the right spots for his fielding unit because fielding is no longer just an add-on but as integral a part of the game as batting or bowling. I feel, though, that the potential lowering of fielding standards will at worst be a minor irritant that India are perfectly capable of brushing aside.

With their batsmen in such spectacular form, India will begin T20Is against Australia as favourites. Going by the pitches for the 50-over games, we can expect more run-fests in the 20-over showdowns. India’s bowling wears a more rounded look this time around, and if the bowlers can complement the in-form batting group, I foresee some happy times for Indian cricket in the immediate future.

(VVS Laxman, CricketCountry’s Chief Cricket Mentor, remains one of the finest and most elegant batsmen in history. He was part of the iconic Indian middle-order for over a decade and a half and played 134 Tests and 86 ODIs. He tweets at @vvslaxman281)